Black US jazz singer, often described as the greatest true jazz singer of all time.
Born in Baltimore, she was called ‘Billie’ after a film star. Her father, Clarence Holiday (1900–37), played the guitar in jazz bands, but she was not introduced to jazz until hearing recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in the brothel in which she worked. Escaping from the brothel, she became a singer in obscure Harlem clubs, where she was discovered by record producer John Hammond; she made her first records with Benny Goodman's band in 1933.
During the period 1935–42 she made well over a hundred records with small jazz groups, usually led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Made quickly and cheaply for sale in the ‘race’ market, they are all now regarded as jazz classics. Her style was inimitable: she subtly altered a melody and phrased a lyric as if she was a jazz musician playing a solo; singing slightly behind the beat, she created an illusion of langour, resignation, or wistfulness. Having had no training, and possessing no technical knowledge, she sang the way she did instinctively. Asked about her skill, she protested that she didn't know any other way to do it. She also sang briefly with the bands of Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and others, appeared in films (notably New Orleans, 1947), and gave concerts at Carnegie Hall. She appeared on television and toured Europe in the 1950s; her acerbic ghosted autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was published in 1956. (A biographical film of the same name, made in 1973, is not highly regarded.)
Deeply scarred by her early poverty and humiliation, she battled in later life against the heroin addiction from which she died – sadly and prematurely. As a coup de grâce she was arrested for possession of narcotics on her hospital deathbed; the charge was widely believed to be false.